On illustrating the invisible

I’ve got a new picture book project in the works! It’s about astronomy, with a focus on the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical research institutes in the world. Located in Castel Gandolfo, just outside of Rome, the observatory is a fascinating place, home to world-class astrophysicists, one of the largest collections of meteorites in the world, and four impressive telescopes.

One of the things that is fascinating to me about the Observatory is how they deal with the relationship between science and beauty. I’ve been really interested in astronomy lately, and besides the pure joy of being able to identify the constellations, and learning about the science of galaxy formation, I’ve also just been struck by how beautiful it is.

In his book Brother Astronomer, Guy Consulmagno, Jesuit astrophysicist and Vatican Observatory director, writes, “The physics behind how a star shines is not only logical and reasonable; it’s also beautiful. And so is the star itself. The joy we experience from that beauty is why the universe is such a delight for us.”

In many ways, working on this project has come very naturally to me. I love to paint night scenes, and I love painting the juxtaposition of organic and inorganic elements– the human geometry of the buildings and gardens, under the abstract mass of stars in the sky– bumping up against each other, in conversation with one another.

In other ways this has been completely different from my previous work– this is the first time I have explored scientific themes in my art, ventured into space, or tried to illustrate things that are invisible! (h/t Andy Miller) I hope to portray a sense the vastness of space and time, and the vastness of scales, between the infinitely huge and the infinitely tiny, as shown in the illustration below– these are images of light from the stars, called stellar spectra, that are created by electrons jumping tiny fractions of nanometers, and the patterns that they create can tell us the temperature of a star, in tens of thousands of degrees, and the star’s distance from Earth, in billions and billions of kilometers. Today these diagrams are made digitally, but one of the pioneers of using spectra to classify stars was Fr. Angelo Secchi, Vatican Observatory director in the 1800s, and he made his spectra by hand, and I think they’re really beautiful that way, as well as useful, so I painted mine by hand as well.

I had the opportunity to share about this at a conference at the University of Notre Dame last week. It was really fun to share the art for the first time, and speaking about it led to some fantastic conversation about astrophysics, beauty, and the nature of science. Excited to continue working on this project!